The services sale is fraught with complexity. Services just aren’t tangible. You can’t easily show them off, let someone try them out, hold or interact with them. Services are abstract, and happen in private.
Services are hard to explain, and hard to understand, and hard to sell. And because services are so hard to describe, it’s hard for your clients to fully understand services.
The idea behind the Serve Don’t Sell Method (“SDS Method”) is simple: when we understand why services are so hard to buy, we understand our buyers; and understanding our buyers allows us to sell in the way that our buyers want to buy. The sales process is fundamentally about helping our buyers make informed decisions. If we can do that, the pressure to sell anything is lifted from us and our buyers.
What follows is a distillation of the SDS Method that includes step-by-step instructions on how to build the systems and confidence you need to win the business you know you should.
By the end of this article, you’ll be able to:
- Construct a sales process especially suited for a services-based business (like consulting, software development, accounting, IT, marketing agencies, coaches, trainers, and similar)
- Accelerate your sales process by knowing what to do at every stage, how it connects to the next stage, and what you need to deliver to your clients throughout
- Produce valuable documentation that’ll guide your sales systems and ensure that you win the work you know you should
- Eliminate the worst prospects quickly, and spend your precious time with only Perfect Fit Clients who you’d love to work with
- Adapt the sales process outlined here to your own business, and even reflect it in your CRM or other sales management tool
5 Stages to the SDS Method Sales Process
The SDS Method is arranged in 5 simple stages that you can follow in sequence. The stages are intended to act as guide rails to the process you use when speaking with new client prospects, or existing clients who could expand their work with you.
The length of your sales process depends on the price and complexity of your service, the risk to your client (of changing and/or doing nothing), the strength of your brand and reputation, and the sources of the leads you get. The less expensive and easier to understand your service, the faster your process. The inverse is usually true, too.
I’ve had clients who sell 6-figure projects that represent seismic shifts in operations and take months to execute. The SDS Method applies to them, but it may take 3-24 months to complete their full sales cycle. Whereas you may be selling projects in the 4-figures-per-month range, and that sales cycle will typically be quite a bit faster, especially if your leads are primarily inbound or come through referrals.
Whatever you’re selling, follow the process. How long you spend on each stage, and cumulatively on the entire sales process, will depend on your specific business.
The SDS Method has five stages: fit, discovery, offer, agreement, and transition. This article will describe each stage, how to run it, what you’ll need in order to execute it, and how to connect one stage to the next to keep your process moving forward.
Now let’s look at each of the five stages.
Stage 1: Assess Client Fit
Everything starts with fit. Whether you’re talking to the right people will be the biggest determinant of how likely they are to buy, and how likely you are to successfully deliver your services. Having a clear picture of who your Perfect Fit Client (PFC) will help you quickly navigate this stage. You may have heard the terms “avatar,” “persona,” or similar. PFC is the same idea, only more specific. Rather than having an abstract idea, you should be able to describe your PFC in detail.
This gets at something worth saying directly: what you do during the sales process is as important as how you plan for it. Defining your PFC takes deeps thinking – it’s not the kind of improv skill most people associate with sales.
Commit your PFC to paper. Talk it over with your team. Make sure everyone knows exactly who makes a great client and why. Include potential red flags that would cause you to end the sales process and recommend a prospective client seek help elsewhere.
The goal of this stage is to determine if there’s a conceptual fit to work together and eliminate anyone who doesn’t fit. That’s it. The goal is not to sell anything.
Running This Stage
This step typically occurs after you get a lead and invite them to an initial call with you. That initial call can last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on your efficiency and how strongly you lead the call or meeting.
Your initial meeting – and every meeting you have with clients – should have a three-part approach. Before the call you’ll reach out to your client with an agenda and prepare them with any details they need to know. For example, how to join and participate in a remote call. During the call you’ll build rapport, review the agenda, cover the contents of the meetings, recap what you’ve covered, then make a decision about next steps. After the call, you’ll follow up with an email documenting what was covered and the decisions that were made, and execute on your next steps.
During Stage 1 of your sales process, your goal is to understand if there’s a conceptual fit between you and your prospect. You should know which questions to ask going in, and eliminate any questions that can be answered on your own or could reasonably be asked through a lead form.
What You’ll Need to Execute This Stage
To execute this step, you’ll need a clear definition of your PFC along with any red flags you want to avoid. Choose both demographic and psychographic factors like: job title, industry, company size, client beliefs or style, core problem(s), previous experience, company maturity, and more. Without a clear definition of your PFC, it won’t be possible to quickly evaluate your clients for fit.
One of the biggest myths about sales is that it can be used to get people to do things they don’t want to. Not true, and that’s not your goal. If you’re trying to convince who aren’t a good fit for your service to buy something, then your pipeline is too small and you’re relying on sales to do the job of marketing. Your desperation will be sensed by all potential clients. Instead, your mindset during Step 1 should be that of a scientist. Your hypothesis: every lead that comes in is not a fit. Your job is to eliminate leads quickly. If you can’t eliminate a lead, then you can be sure that you’re spending time with a high potential PFC.
Connecting Stage 1 to Stage 2
As with all stages in the sales process, there are two basic outcomes: you continue through the sales process with your potential client, or you agree to part ways. If it makes sense to continue, say so. Book a discovery meeting (Stage 2 of the sales process) before you end the Stage 1 meeting, send a meeting invite as confirmation, and follow up with an email recap of your first meeting.
Stage 2: Discover Your Client’s Motivation
Do you know the full story of why someone has decided that now might be the right time to engage with you? Do you know what’s driving them to talk to you, and take on the risk of working with you? Of course not – not at the outset, at least. That part takes time.
The purpose of stage two is to discover your client’s motivation. There are three components to their motivation: pain, goals, and value. During the discovery stage, you’ll address each and connect them all together so you can draw a straight line from your client’s motivation to your services. You’re not selling a solution so much as you’re helping your client reach a destination.
Think of it like you’re building a bridge. Your client is stuck on one side, wondering how they’ll get across to the other side. They don’t want the bridge so much as they want to get across to the other side of the bridge. Your solution is the bridge, but your client is buying the destination. During discovery, focus their attention on 1) how painful their current situation is and how it’s an existential threat, 2) why they want to improve it, and 3) what life will be like once they do. If you can convincingly connect your solution to the destination they want to reach, you’ve got a new client.
Running This Stage
This step is typically run in one or more meetings focused mainly on your client. During this step, you’ll listen much more than you’ll talk. I recommend you have a pre-determined list of questions that you ask for each service line you have. So if you’re an accounting firm, the way you run discovery with a client who wants exit planning may be slightly different than a client who needs help reaching profitability for the first time. Your questions will be centered on your client’s pain, goals, and the value they’re seeking (also called value-based selling). You can use our 6 discovery questions list as a starting place to run your own discovery process.
At a basic level, the questions you ask during discovery should establish:
- Your client’s personal and organizational pain points, and why it’s so bad that they need to make an immediate change (i.e. why change?)
- The goals they have for change, and the internal and external motivation they have to make the change (i.e. what do you want?)
- The objective, demonstrable or measurable results they want to achieve by working with you (i.e. what it’s worth)
What You’ll Need to Execute This Stage
Good listening skills and an understanding of why most of your clients buy is the prerequisite to getting this step right. You’ll also need some patience. Allow your clients to talk, and resist the urge to add too much of your opinion. And more than anything, don’t pitch during discovery.
During discovery, your mindset should be to help your client make an informed decision. They may not know all of the particulars about their pain, goals, and value – you’ve seen more people in their position than they have. By asking the right questions, listening, and challenging their assumptions, you’ll help point them in the direction of making a more-informed (and better) decision – which may mean working with you, and may not.
Connecting Stage 2 to Stage 3
Once you reach the end of stage two, recap what you’ve learned during discovery aloud to your client and ask them for confirmation. This is a good checkpoint for them to confirm or adjust your understanding of their pain, goals, and value in pursuing a project. If you’re still confident they have a problem you can fix, tell them so, and give them a high-level picture of how you can help them. If they’re interested in learning more (and they will be), invite them to another meeting. Your stage three meeting will be the place to finally talk all about your offer and how you can deliver results to your client.
Stage 3: Offer Your Sales Story
Now that you’ve qualified your client and discovered their motivation, it’s time to make an offer. Your offer should build upon what you’ve learned in the previous steps so that there’s added context to it. When you make your offer, I recommend you always do this live in a meeting (whether in-person or remote) and make it a conversation rather than doing a canned presentation. Yes, you should know what you’re going to say, and you should have a clear plan for the whole meeting. But don’t read from a script. Your offer should be a transformation story – one that begins with where your client is now, and all the pain they’re in, and culminates in their dream destination and a clear, plausible description of how you can help them get there.
The goal of making your offer is to establish the link between what your client needs and what you can do to help them achieve it. Position your solution as the only logical option for your client, while deepening your credibility and mitigating their risk.
Running This Stage
Your offer will typically be made in a single meeting. Since I sell remotely, I prefer to use a slide deck as a visual aid to walk clients through the offer. This means I’m communicating through sound and sight, which is more engage than just a plain text document.
I recommend you include the following in every offer you make, no matter what you sell:
- Your client’s pain points, goals, and targeted business outcomes they’re seeking (don’t skip this part – it’s just a review of discovery)
- How you can deliver their desired business outcomes (i.e. a description of your service and/or process)
- One or two examples of how you’ve delivered results in the past for similar clients
- Options for working with you
- Q+A in order to field questions from your client, assess their interest, and address objections on the spot so they have a clear understanding of your offer
Every meeting should be a conversation, not a presentation or lecture. Even though Q+A is the last item on the agenda, it’s important to invite questions throughout your offer meeting to solidify understanding and request feedback.
What You’ll Need to Execute This Stage
To execute this stage, you’ll need a standard- or custom-offer. You’ll also need an easy way to host the meeting (again, in-person or remote) as well as a slide deck or other visual aid to make the discussion more engaging and easier to follow. Include all relevant notes you’ve made about your prospective client along the way.
If you reach this stage, you should be confident that you’re addressing a PFC and they’re likely to say yes to your offer. You still can’t make anyone buy, but you can certainly make the case that your services have a high potential to help your prospect, and that their downside risk is mitigated by the experience you bring to bear with clients like them. Remember that your goal is to serve, and the best you can serve someone may be to work together. Tell them that, and why you’re confident you can help.
Connecting Stage 3 to Stage 4
Once you make your offer, describe to your client what needs to happen in order to reach an agreement and do business with you. If you typically use proposals and contracts, describe what will be in it. If there are other decision makers involved in the process, ask what they’ll think about the proposal, and what they need in place to reach an agreement. You can begin strategizing with your client to reach an agreement as soon as you’ve made your offer.
Stage 4: Reaching an Agreement
You’ve vetted your client for fit, learned about their motivation and goals, and made an offer. The only thing left to do is finalize an agreement. This step is all about settling any open questions about if they’ll work with you, how they’ll work with you, and how much they’ll buy. While the negotiation and contracting process is a key part of reaching an agreement, so is anticipating and addressing objections.
The goal of this stage is to finalize the details of how you’ll work together, when, and how much of your services your client will buy (and what is the right amount!). Ultimately, the goal is to get a yes or no decision. If it’s a yes, you’ll also need a signed contract and/or payment made. If you tend to do business informally, you won’t need to spend much time on reaching an agreement.
Executing This Stage
This stage is closely linked to your offer. If you are selling to single buyers (i.e. business owners), then you may accomplish the entire Agreement step in the same meeting as the Offer.
But if you’re juggling multiple stakeholders with diverse interests and needs, reaching agreement may be a drawn-out process. This stage typically involves a written proposal or payment form, depending on your process for onboarding clients. Assuming you use written proposals, run this step by:
- Sending a written proposal that reflects your offer presentation, with the intention of receiving feedback (or amending your offer in the previous step based upon client feedback at your offer meeting)
- Collecting needs and issues raised by stakeholders
- Identifying unmet client needs and incorporating them into an updated proposal
- Reaching agreement through give-and-take compromise
- Getting a signed contract from your client
What You’ll Need to Execute This Stage
What’s the absolute minimum deal you’re willing to take? Asked another way, at what point would you rather forgo a new client project than accept their terms? In order to reach agreement, you should know two things: 1) if you’re willing to negotiate in order to reach agreement, 2) how much you’re willing to give up, and what you need to receive in return. Negotiation should be an exchange, not an ultimatum.
There are plenty of negotiation levers you and your client can pull. Price is only one of many levers. Others include: payment terms, scope, marketing and case studies, timing, access, quality, resources, priority, options and extras. Have a clear picture of what you’re willing to give up, and what you need in return, prior to any negotiation.
You’ll also be well-served to list out any objections you’re likely to hear. These may come up at any point during the sales process. It’s better that objections arise before you reach the agreement stage, but when they do, be prepared to address them.
No deal is done until it is signed and paid for. And no deal is worth undercutting your minimum requirements. Hard as it may be, you have to be prepared to walk away from new business opportunities. If you aren’t, you’ll let other people dictate your business, and by definition they won’t be your PFCs.
Your mindset during this step should be one of exploring: you’re working with your prospective client to find out if you can reach an agreement you both like. If you can, that’s exciting! If you can’t reach an agreement, you both tried. Some things just don’t work out, and there’s always the possibility of working together in the future.
Connecting Stage 4 to Stage 5
Reaching an agreement begins the transition from sales to delivery. As you approach the end of stage four, notify your client of the next steps to begin the transition. You can also use your transition to delivery as a way to ramp up urgency for your client to make a decision one way or the other.
Stage 5: Transitioning Prospects to Clients
The point of marketing and sales is to attract and land new clients. When you reach the point of agreement, it’s time to prepare your new client for how you work, and what’s expected of them to maximize their chances of success. This stage can work in tandem with finalizing the agreement in the previous stage, as well.
The goal of this stage is to make a seamless transition from the sales process into delivery, without losing time or momentum. Your client’s excitement and expectations are likely to be at an all-time high as you enter into the delivery phase, so making the transition successfully will drive client satisfaction.
Running This Stage
The transition should create clarity of process. Tell your client everything that’s required of them, what you’ll do next, and lay out a timeline. The transition connects the end of your sales process to the beginning of your delivery process, so you should consider taking specific steps like:
- Walking your client through the specifics of your onboarding process
- Preparing your client for whomever their service provider will be (if it’s not you)
- Setting up clear direction around collaboration
- Establishing different points of contact for different reasons (i.e. accounting, support, their continued access to you or other members of the sales team, etc.)
- Sending any supporting materials or documentation that could make them more successful
What You’ll Need to Execute This Stage
To execute this step, you’ll need clarity on how to close out your sales process, and how your onboarding process works. If you don’t already have it, document your requirements for new clients and your onboarding process. These documents will look like standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Your mindset during the transition should be one of service. How can you help your new client get started and reach success as quickly as possible? Focus on ways that you can help them succeed, and help your team succeed if you’re passing your client off to someone on your client delivery team.
How to Build a Sales Process at Your Firm
What you’ve just read is the refined, revisited, and rewritten sales process that’s resulted from ten years of focus and trial-and-error. You can’t put it all into place in a day. Here’s what you can do.
Start small. Take what you’ve learned in this article and prioritize parts of your sales list that need the most work. Begin to adjust, alter, and improve those. Identify your skill gaps. Work on those too.
And if you haven’t already done it, document your process. Whatever it is today, just write it down. The act of documenting your sales process will help expose some of its deficiencies. As you write, capture a list of further adjustments you need to make in the future. If you have a team, ask for their input.
Lastly, make a habit of reflecting on every sales process you run. Most elite performers do two things really well: they’re brutally honest with themselves about their abilities and shortcomings; and they reflect on each performance, noting what they did well and what they can improve for the next time. Make a habit of it, and hold reviews with your team if you have one.
I wish you luck and plenty of intention. My efforts in writing this article and creating the SDS Method are aimed at changing the way 100 million people sell. I hope you’re one of them.
If you’d like to examine the different sales models for firms and the questions to answer so you can build your own process, check out my article detailing the sales process for professional services.
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